Tuesday, February 26, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY (1949)


The problem with adapting certain novels to the screen is that their greatness comes not just from the stories themselves but how they're told. J.D. Salinger knew that a movie version of Catcher in the Rye would never work because the book's driving force -- Holden Caulfield's narration -- was unfilmable.

The Great Gatsby is another case of mistaking a great story for movie fodder. It's the genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald that he manages to make you care about a bunch of people you otherwise wouldn't waste your spit on. I decided to run a few minutes of the 1949 movie version starring Alan Ladd -- which I'd never seen -- for my daughter. She had just finished reading the book a couple of hours earlier; with it still fresh in her mind, she'd be able to fill me in on what the movie got wrong even in the first scene.

The movie opens in the present day (i.e., 1949) with Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker, apparently happily married, placing flowers on the grave of Jay Gatsby. "Wait, what is this?" my daughter objected. "This isn't in the book!" This is followed by a brief history lesson, narrated by Nick, about the jazz age, climaxing with Jay Gatsby making like Machine Gun Kelley by mowing down a car full of fellow bootleggers. "Gatsby isn't like this!" wailed my daughter. (Look at the poster above. Paramount was clearly trying to sell Gatsby as another Alan Ladd gangster picture like This Gun for Hire.)

It was all downhill from the first scene. My daughter was so taken by the movie's inadequacies that we wound up watching the whole thing. Some of her objections spoken throughout:
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"Wait, Nick knew Gatsby in the war. They're not strangers!" 
"That scene happens in at the end, not the beginning!"  
"Gatsby doesn't have henchmen!"

"Hi, folks! We really screwed up
a great book. Hope you like it!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
 "You don't know Daisy has a daughter until near the end!"
"This scene lasts two chapters in the book!"
"Tom Buchanan is supposed to be huge. Who is this guy?"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"OK, that drunk is in the book... but he's discovered by Nick, not Gatsby!"
"Tom's affair with Myrtle goes all the way through the book! You hardly see it here!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"
"Daisy doesn't turn herself in for killing Myrtle. And Tom doesn't try to warn Gatsby that Wilson's going to shoot him; he wants to see Gatsby dead!"
"No! Only the drunk guy goes to Gatsby's funeral!"
"What?! Nick and Jordan don't become a couple!"
"What's going on? This never happened!"

My kid got a 14-karat lesson in the way Hollywood can completely screw up a work of art. She found the 1949 Gatsby no less than appalling. Having little memory of the books' details, I could only go by what I saw. And what I saw was a potentially-interesting story trying to break loose from its mediocre surroundings. 

How stupid do you think Alan Ladd felt posing for this publicity shot?


"Let's watch television. Oh wait, this is 1928!"
My first beef was with the clothes. It takes place in 1928, but everyone's dressed in their finest 1949 gear. The closest anybody gets to looking authentic is when Alan Ladd wears two-toned shoes, and those didn't appear until the '30s. Speaking of Ladd, did someone slip him a Nembutal before the cameras rolled? His is the sleepiest performance this side of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. When he's not gunning down rival gangsters, that is. Which, as my daughter will remind you, isn't in the book. On the other hand, 36 year-old Ladd provides some welcome, if unintended, laughs in a flashback when playing Gatsby at age 14. (Technically, since Nick is telling the story, it's one of the movie's three flashbacks within flashbacks, like a particularly bad acid trip.)

Ladd's primary co-stars -- Betty Field (Daisy Buchanan), Barry Sullivan (Tom), Macdonald Carey (Nick) and Ruth Hussey (Jordan) -- are equally adrift. As noted before, without Fitzgerald telling the story, the Gatsby characters are about as sympathetic as the Shining Path. Betty Field, in fact, has the same problem as Mia Farrow did 25 years later. Her Daisy Buchanan isn't just ditsy, she's a Long Island Blanche DuBois -- irritating, whiny, nuts. If I were Gatsby, I'd thank my lucky stars I'd broken up with her.

And why does the movie take place in 1928 when the book places it six years earlier? Did the year 1922 sound too ancient for the studio? The script certainly goes out of its way to refresh the audience's memory right from the get-go. As Nick puts flowers on Gatsby's
grave, Jordan sighs, "He seems like someone we knew in another time, another life, another world. Jazz, prohibition, flaming youth." Everyone involved seemed to have forgotten the maxim Show, don't tell. Or at least tell with good dialogue.

"Get out of my light, old sport."
Ironically, a problem comes when the movie is too faithful to the source material, viz, Gatsby's nicknaming everyone "old sport." In the book, it's an affectation that provides insight to his character. Here, as in the 1974 version, it just sounds awkward and unrealistic. Dialogue that reads well on paper doesn't always sound good when spoken.

"Better catch me now
before I pack on another
200 pounds."
It's up to the supporting characters to goose things up. I had hopes when seeing Elisha Cook, Jr.'s name in the credits. But rather than his usual intense persona that enlivened many a movie, he, along with Ed Begley, portrays one of Gatsby's henchmen with the power of cottage cheese. Howard Da Silva is fine, however, as the weak, sickly Wilson. I actually felt bad for the guy, especially since he has no idea that his wife, Myrtle, is fooling around with Tom Buchanan. Myrtle is played by Shelley Winters with her usual gusto (i.e., loud and trashy). It's a shock to see Winters when she was young -- in this case, age 29 -- and kind of attractive before she morphed into the dumpy great-aunt you tried to avoid at family reunions.

Criminal acts in movies couldn't go unpunished in 1949. So in Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan insists on turning herself in for running down Myrtle. Her husband Tom, who hates hates hates Gatsby in the novel, actually tries to prevent his murder. He even promises Daisy that he'll be a better husband. To drive home the point that Gatsby got what was coming, Nick quotes the Bible in the very first scene: "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death." Its source, Proverbs 14:12, is carved on Gatsby's grave -- the grave that isn't in the book. The carving was arranged by Nick, who, in the film, knew Gatsby about a day and a half. What a freaking movie.

"It's the feel-good movie of the year!"
Ultimately, The Great Gatsby, rather than being an epic movie based on a classic novel, is just another studio melodrama about star-crossed lovers who act against God's wishes. You could probably change the names of the characters and not even know what you were watching. If F. Scott Fitzgerald hadn't drunk himself to death nine years earlier, this movie would have definitely finished him off.

Moviemakers just don't learn. Later this year, yet another version of The Great Gatsby -- this time in 3-D! -- starring Leo DiCaprio hits the screens. The director, Baz Luhrmann, made the excerable Moulin Rouge!, so you know what to expect. And as in 1949, Hollywood is still nervous about releasing a movie set in the '20s. To calm people's fears, the score will be provided by Jay-Z and the Bullits. If that doesn't put you in the jazz age mood, maybe this Tweet from lead Bullit Jaymes Samuel will: Jay-Z and myself have been working tirelessly on the score for the forthcoming #CLASSIC The Great Gatsby! It is too DOPE for words. Other music will be provided by Prince and Lady GaGa. Dope, indeed.

The 1949 Great Gatsby has never been released on video. Considering the movie is based on the novel and the 1926 Broadway play by Owen Davis, I figure Paramount couldn't be bothered clearing the rights. Interested parties can view it on YouTube in a decent, if not pristine, print for free. However, you still might want your money back, old sport.
                                                              
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

DEPUTY SERAPH (1959)

Being a Marx Brothers fan is a frustrating thing. When you get right down to it, there are only a handful of their 13 movies worthy of them. The others are weighed down by sappy romantic subplots, even sappier music and scripts that range from just OK to mediocre.

What makes it even more disappointing is knowing there could have been more great Marx movies if they'd only gotten past the discussion stage. Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and even Salvador Dali had ideas ready to go, all undoubtedly more interesting than most of what was eventually made.

Yet one unfinished project that actually got before the cameras in 1959 was, of all things, a sitcom. Deputy Seraph was to star Harpo and Chico as angels who, every week, would straighten out the problems of a different inhabitant of earth. The earthlings would never physically interact with the Marxes. Rather, they would take on the angels' characteristics while being inhabited by them -- which, in the case of Harpo and Chico, consisted of communicating via pantomime and a comedic Italian accent respectively.

In other words, about 50% of each episode would have been actors imitating actors who imitated a mute and an Italian. It's difficult to see the entertainment value in such a series. Perhaps this was why writer/producer Phillip Rapp convinced Groucho, still hosting You Bet Your Life, to appear in every third episode as God's right-hand man -- the deputy seraph -- giving orders to the angels and taking part in their duties when necessary. (The Jackson brothers nobody cared about used a similar tactic whenever trying to interest producers in a reality series, i.e., "Michael will make an appearance!" Unlike Rapp, however, they never bothered asking Michael first.) The Marxes' agent -- conveniently, younger brother Gummo -- finalized the deal. Youngest brother Zeppo presumably congratulated them with grapefruits from his ranch.

Roughly fifteen minutes of the Deputy Seraph pilot, consisting only of the Marx Brothers, were shot on a Hollywood soundstage. Producer Rapp must have been counting on the goodwill of the audience to help put this over. Even taking into account that this is faded raw footage, lacking proper edits, sound effects and voice-overs, it's still pretty chintzy. The set -- nothing more than foam "clouds" and a black backdrop -- looks less like Heaven and more like a cheap strip club. The angels' gossamer robes appear to have been made from discarded sheets of Reynolds Wrap. Close-ups of Harpo and Chico are badly edited into footage of their doubles using the "clouds" as trampolines. As Groucho once wrote a friend regarding the second-rate Marx Brothers comedy Go West, "This is a fine comedown for a man who used to be the toast of Broadway."

There doesn't seem to have been much effort put into the script, either. Bits from Marx Brothers movies appear throughout, while Groucho's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired -- like real jokes:

GROUCHO: (flicking cigar ashes down to earth) There. That's the first time they ever had snow in Bali Bali.
CHICO: Bali Bali?
HARPO: (honks horn twice)
GROUCHO: Bali Bali?!

It's one of the one fixed rules of comedy: just because a name sounds funny doesn't mean it is. Especially when it's spoken three times in a row for no good reason. Perhaps that's why Harpo comes off best throughout-- all he has to do is make faces. And it's remarkable how he appears younger and, well, more angelic than his 71 years. Still, he and Chico have the whiff of long-ago vaudeville about them, while Groucho, despite his mediocre dialogue, comes off as the most contemporary. It's easy to picture the new wave of '50s comedians, like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, enjoying You Bet Your Life while wondering why his brothers were still going through the motions.

Unedited reaction shots that take up some of Deputy Seraph's running time actually provide the most interesting footage. But it's a little painful to see Chico continually screwing up his lines -- an affliction going back to his stage years -- and having to take inane off-screen direction: "Say 'Look!" "Don't say 'Harpo'!" "Give me the full treatment on the dialect!" Seventy-two at the time, Chico seems not just tired but defeated, as if wondering what he was doing on a drafty soundstage when he could have been playing gin with his buddies at the Hillcrest Country Club.

If so, he had only himself to blame. A gambling addict since childhood, Chico bordered on insolvency even at the height of his career. There's a good chance the Marx Brothers never would have made any movies after A Day at the Races in 1937 if it hadn't been for his money problems. (And judging by their subsequent output, that might not have been such a bad idea.) By 1959, Harpo was content with the occasional TV and concert gigs, while Groucho was busy with You Bet Your Life. They probably went along with Deputy Seraph just to make sure their brother had a paycheck.

In the end, it didn't matter. A medical check-up discovered that Chico had arteriosclerosis, preventing him from being insured. As a result, production on Deputy Seraph ceased. (Billy Wilder's intended Marx Brothers movie, A Day at the United Nations, was shelved for the same reason.) The footage was promptly forgotten until pirated versions turned up on video three decades later, simultaneously surprising and disappointing Marx fans everywhere. 

Even with Deputy Seraph's demise, Groucho still had a couple of years of You Bet Your Life left. And Harpo and Chico, either separately or apart, were nightclub mainstays and commercial pitchmen for products ranging from shampoo to beer. It's a testament to the Marx Brothers longstanding popularity that they probably would have found an audience for all 39 proposed episodes of the series. But as Groucho says in Deputy Seraph, "Well, you can't win 'em all."

Hollywood Gotterdammerung: Gummo, Zeppo, Chico, Groucho and Harpo




Wednesday, February 6, 2013

ADDRESS UNKNOWN (1944)

Many, perhaps most, B-movies were content to stay in their own little boxes -- quick little pictures meant to entertain with little thought as to quality. Nothing wrong with that, of course; not every movie can be The Magnificent Ambersons. Or should be, for that matter.

Then there are others, like Address Unknown, that go beyond their genre into full-fledged greatness, demanding to be recognized as such. Address Unknown fits its title -- a movie that over time, perhaps in its time, was lost in the shuffle. It is a movie about the destruction of one man's soul, where family takes second place to power, evil literally steps out of shadows, and the simple ringing of a mailman's bicycle bell creates feelings of dread. It's the best Hitchock film that Hitchcock never made.



Taking place shortly after Hitler's rise to power, Address Unknown is the story of Martin Schultz, a German immigrant living in California who returns to the Fatherland, leaving behind his business partner, Max Eisenstein. Accompanying Martin are his family and Max's daughter, Griselle. Griselle intends to study acting in Europe before returning to the USA to marry Martin's son, Heinrich.

A good man by nature, Martin soon comes under the spell of Baron von Friesche, a mid-level government official. Over time, Martin becomes a happy cog in the Nazi machine and, eventually, cutting off all communication with his Jewish friend Max. When Martin refuses to give shelter to Griselle, who is on the run from stormtroopers, we know that he's lost any sense of humanity.


Soon, strange coded messages, with Max's return address, start arriving at Martin's door. As these letters are read by government censors, Martin comes under suspicion of treason. His wife Elsa, sickened by Martin's transformation from family man to Nazi monster, leaves Germany with their children.

The coded messages come faster, as do the threatening visits by Baron von Friesche. One night, Martin's growing paranoia finally gets the better of him -- for good reason, as he hears the grim march of stormtroopers approaching his front door.


While there is no doubt that Herbert Dalmas' adaptation of Kressman Taylor's novel deserves commendation, the power of Address Unknown ultimately comes from director William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Rudolph Mate, two talents not generally associated with B-movies. Menzies' credits (as director and art director) include Things to Come, The Thief of Baghdad and 1933's Alice in Wonderland. Mate was no slouch in the classics department, either, having worked with, among others, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch and Orson Welles. That Address Unknown was a labor of love (if that's the right phrase) is undeniable from the very beginning. The unusually tight close-ups of Martin and Max toasting a new future signal that this is will be no ordinary programmer.

Menzies and Mate must have studied Citizen Kane long and hard, for Address Unknown visually evokes that masterpiece throughout its 75-minute running time. Still, it's vital to point out that Address Unknown stands on its own two feet -- rarely has a movie with such a short running time been so jam-packed with memorable images.

A recurring image in Address Unknown is the little Nazi who looms large simply by his surroundings: Martin in his office (left) and the government censor at a theater where Griselle is rehearsing her play (right).


The motif is echoed in the Baron's first scene
(left) and ironically when Max receives news of his daughter's death (right).



Yet close-ups play a vital role in creating terror, whether it be the government censor (left) or the mob at the theater going after Griselle (right).








Movies made following World War II often portrayed the Nazi high command with cool, ironic detachment. Those released in the thick of it, however, had no problem portraying the ugly world of Nazi Germany. (That's the difference between trying to win a war and win an Oscar.) Address Unknown is no different. Again, the visuals come into play. Whether standing in the shadows or looming over Martin threateningly, Baron von Friesche is never less than a frightening presence.





Along with Baron von Friesche, the horrors of Nazi Germany are reinforced when Jewish shop-owners cower in fear as their store window is smashed (left) while "good" Germans look on in approval (right).

While Martin is the key figure in Address Unknown, it's the character of Giselle who has some of the strongest scenes -- and unwittingly sets the stage for Martin's downfall. She's been rehearsing her play when the censor (Charles Halton, in a brilliantly demonic performance -- just watch the way he spits out the word "artists") demands three Biblical passages be cut from the play: Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. When Giselle recites the lines on opening night, the censor stops the show and forces her to announce her real last name (Eisenstein) rather than her stage name (Stone). Cries of "Juden!" come from the audience, which rushes the stage in an attempt to kill her.

Giselle makes her escape to Martin's house. With the troops in hot pursuit, Martin turns her away, whispering, "Go away! You will destroy us all!" As Griselle's registers a sad acceptance of her fate, Martin shuts the door. A moment later, we hear a woman's scream and three gunshots. Martin stares blankly at the bloody handprint she left behind on the wall.

Helping create a sense of realism in Address Unknown is the unfamiliarity of today's audience with the cast. To put it another way, when the character of Rick is introduced in Casablanca, our immediate thought is, "Ahh! Bogie!" Paul Lukas (Martin), Morris Carnovsky (Max), K.T. Stevens (Griselle), Carl Esmond (von Friesche), on the other hand, are unknown now and, thus, are immediately accepted as their characters first, rather than as themselves. The only actor remotely recognizable is Frank Faylen (right), who was to gain lasting fame on TV as Dobie Gillis' exasperated father.



Interesting, too, is Paul Lukas. His resemblance to Walt Disney is at times startling -- all the more so since Disney was said to have been an early admirer of Hitler. Was this the moviemakers' way of sending a subtle message to otherwise uknowing audiences?

When I started writing this, I was both excited and hesitant to go into detail about the movie. Excited because it unexpectedly, wonderfully knocked me out of my seat. Hesitant, because I wanted people to notice its treasures with fresh eyes. Excitement won the day.

Address Unknown is on Amazon, presumably in the same pristine version recently run on TCM. Break out the credit card; it'll be the best eighteen bucks you've ever spent. Ripe for resdiscovery, Address Unknown is a classic hiding in plain sight and is guaranteed to stand up to repeated viewings.

And as for the meaning of its title -- well, that's all made clear in its shocking denoument...

Which you'll have to find out for yourself.


****************
(Note: all photos with the bluish tint were taken by me off our TV.)